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JLF 2015: How can India keep its tigers safe

Amid all the cheer about the rise in the tiger population, wildlife expert Valmik Thapar sounds a note of caution and says much more needs to be done.

books Updated: Jan 23, 2015 16:53 IST
Vishakha Saxena
Vishakha Saxena
Hindustan Times
Save the tiger

As India celebrates news of being home to 70% of the tiger population of the world, naturalist, conservationist and author Valmik Thapar believes that there is a lot more that needs to be done.

During a session with Ruth Padel, author of Tigers in Red Weather, at the 2015 Jaipur Literature Festival, Thapar said a "spike in the fall of tiger population can be just as quick" as it tends to dwindle regularly.

Talking about his struggle with conservation of tigers, Thapar reminded the audience of the grim situation in India five years ago. "We lost all the tigers in Sariska, half the population in Ranthambore and all the 34 tigers in Panna."

Despite multiple investigations, no one has been held accountable for the extinction of tigers in Sariska and Panna. He talked about how scientists working in Madhya Pradesh warned the state government when the first tiger went missing.

"Government of MP laughed at us, sent us a letter saying there was no such thing and that they can't be warned like this."

In light of the discussion, Thapar said that while the Centre acts as an advisory and provides money, all power with regard to the matter lies vested in state governments.

Thapar, a respected wildlife expert, has spent decades following India's tiger population. He has produced and narrated documentaries for media organisations like BBC, National Geographic, Animal Planet, etc.

During the session, the panelists also shed light on poaching - the biggest threat to wildlife. Tigers are poached for everything -- from body parts to skin and these are subsequently sold at very high prices.

"Tiger skins are now sold on e-Bay!" said Padel adding that there was a need to relocate villages in sanctuaries and national parks. They will want food so they will build roads which will give easy access to poachers and "tigers might eat their sheep, their children," she said.

The panel also revealed the biggest demand for poached animal parts comes from China. Though there has been some dialogue between the Indian and Chinese governments to curtail this demand, the panel argued that "China is difficult to deal with" and "there's only so much that official dialogue can do."

So what's the solution?

Thapar believes, quite passionately, that the most important step towards saving tigers will be a "genuine" public-private partnership that works on plans and policies for forest conservation, innovates and encourages people-centric conservation.

"If they can get Nilekani to do UID, what's stopping them from getting talented people (for habitat conservation)?" he said.

Thapar stressed on how "there is no law preventing non-government people from holding important positions," be it in teams or positions of authority.

Another important step is fixing India's legal system in this regard. There is a need for a holistic law that governs our wildlife, people and the authorities so that "no grey area of exploitation" remains. Thapar's views stand affirmed by the World Bank which has been critical of Indian wildlife laws.

As for poaching, Thapar stressed on how it can only be controlled and not be eliminated completely. "Poachers will always find a way. In Kaziranga, poachers fight forest officials with AK 47s. You cannot stop them," he said, adding that increased foot patrolling is the best way to discourage poachers.

So what can the common man do? Padel says that people from all walks of life can contribute by creating awareness. "Talk to people. Read and learn about tigers and talk to your children, talk to people. If you preserve the tiger, you preserve the whole ecosystem," she said.

First Published: Jan 23, 2015 14:55 IST